Review: ‘Hijack 1971,’ starring Ha Jung-woo, Yeo Jin-goo, Sung Dong-il and Chae Soo-bin

July 5, 2024

by Carla Hay

Ha Jung-woo and Sung Dong-il (pictured in front) in “Hijack 1971” (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures International)

“Hijack 1971”

Directed by Kim Seong-han

Korean with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in South Korea and North Korea in 1971 (and briefly in 1969), the action film “Hijack 1971” (based on real events) features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A disgraced military airline pilot in South Korea comes back from a hiatus to co-pilot a commercial flight, only to have the flight hijacked by a terrorist who is sympathetic to North Korean politics.  

Culture Audience: “Hijack 1971” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and suspenseful, action-packed hijack movies.

Yeo Jin-goo in “Hijack 1971” (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures International)

“Hijack 1971” delivers everything that viewers can expect from a high-octane, well-acted thriller about a plane being hijacked in the air. The fact that this movie is based on a true story makes it more interesting. “Hijack 1971” does a very good job of showing the human stories behind this terrifying experience.

Directed by Kim Seong-han and written by Kim Kyung-chan, “Hijack 1971” is based on real events, but the names of the characters have been changed to be different from the real-life people. The movie begins on December 11, 1969, by showing a fateful event that has a profound effect on the movie’s main protagonist. Tae-in (played by Ha Jung-woo), who is a compassionate and friendly, works for a South Korean Air Force unit that is in charge of protecting commercial aircraft. This character is based on the real-life Park Wan-gyu.

On this day, Tae-in and his younger pilot colleague Choi Dong-cheol (played by Kim Dong-wook) are patrolling in the air above South Korea, when they see that a Korean Air Lines YS-11 plane going from Gangneung for Seoul has been hijacked. The hijackers took over the NAMC YS-11-125 aircraft and forced it to fly to Pyongyang, North Korea.

During this hijacking, Tae-in could see inside the hijacked plane and noticed that his supervisor Seo Min-soo (played by Choi Kwang-il) was piloting the plane without his co-pilot. Tae-in then makes the decision to not follow military protocol to shoot at the plane’s engine, in order to scare the hijackers. Tae-in’s reasoning is that he didn’t want to do anything that would anger the hijackers, who could then harm the innocent people on the plane.

Because the hijackers got away with taking the plane with hostages to North Korea, Tae-in and Dong-cheol are blamed for it, and they both get suspended. However, Tae-in gets a harsher scolding for it because he is a more experienced pilot and has a higher military ranking than Dong-cheol. Over the next several days, after tense negotiations, 39 of the 50 hostages were let go and were allowed to return to South Korea.

Tae-in becomes depressed over this suspension and begins to doubt his abilities as a pilot who can keep people safe. His supportive wife Moon-young (played by Im Se-mi) is the only person who reminds him that he did save lives, but Tae-in wants to win back the respect of his peers. Tae-in gets a chance to prove his worth when he is assigned to be the first officer pilot for a civilian Korean Air Lines on January 23, 1971. The aircraft is Hotel-Lima 5212. In real life, the aircraft was Fokker F27 Friendship 500.

The captain of the plane is Lee Gyu-sik (played by Sung Dong-il), who is calm and professional. Gyu-sik is based on the real-life Lee Kang-heun. Gyu-sik is aware that Tae-in is coming back from a suspension, but he is not judgmental and thinks Tae-in has a right to prove his merit on this flight. Meanwhile, a few of the flight attendants in the back are gossiping about Tae-in because they know why he was suspended.

The people on this airplane soon find out that there’s a hijacker of this flight: His name is Yong-dae (played by Yeo Jin-goo), a lone terrorist who in his early 20s. He has crude homemade hand grenades and a gun as weapons. The Yong-dae character is based on the real-life Kim Sang-tae.

Just like the hijacking in 1969, this motive for this hijacking is for the plane to go to North Korea. During the course of the movie, Yong-dae expresses his disillusionment with South Korea’s capitalist/democratic government and says that Koreans are better off living a North Korean communist way of life. Yong-dae mentions that his brother was one of the hijackers in the 1969 flight, and he says his brother is a hero in North Korea because of this hijacking. Flashbacks in the movie show why Yong-dae has become such an angry and violent terrorist.

“Flight 1971” has tension-filled suspense from the beginning of this hijacking until the end. The movie’s cinematography and visual effects are superb at immersing viewers in this experience. Some of the camera work is meant to evoke feelings of claustrophobia and dizziness, especially in scenes where the plane gets out of the pilots’ control.

Yong-dae is a loose cannon who frequently storms into the cockpit. He made his first hijacking move on the flight by throwing a hand grenade at the cockpit door. During Yong-dae’s attacks inside and outside the cockpit, plane captain Gyu-sik is injured in his eyes and becomes blind, possibly permanently. It should also come as no surprise that Tae-in also gets wounded. The flight attendant who is the main focus of the story is Lee Ok-soon (played by Chae Soo-bin), who does her best to try to keep the passengers calm.

Most of the passengers are anonymous. Those who have names in the movie are not given much of backstory. There’s an elderly woman from a farm who brings a chicken on board with her. A man who works as a prosecutor is traveling with his blind mother. An English teacher named Lee Soo-hee (played by Jeong Ye-jin), who works at Woochang Middle School, is accompanying a student named Lee Han-bong (played by Moon Woo-jin) as his adult guardian for the flight. A man named Nam-il (played by Kim Chul-yoon) is a newlywed who is on this plane flight to meet up his wife for their honeymoon

The main focus of “Hijack 1971” is on how the hero pilots (especially Tae-in) handle this crisis caused by this violent terrorist. It’s a test of their physical and emotional strength. In his performance as Tae-in, Ha does a very good job of portraying the inner turmoil of Tae-in, who feels had additional responsibility to prove he can stop this hijacking when he was deemed a “failure” the previous time he had a chance to stop a hijacking.

Tae is still reeling from criticism that he “wasn’t brave enough” in his previous hijacking incident. He now has to make split-second, life-or-death decisions now that he is in the middle of another hijacking. All of the cast members capably handle their roles, but Tae-in is the character that the movie reveals the most about, in order for viewers to feel the most invested in this character. Whether or not viewers know the real-life outcome of this hijacking, “Hijack 1971” is still worth seeing for this unforgettable story.

Sony Pictures International released “Hijack 1971” in select U.S. cinemas on July 5, 2024.

True Crime Entertainment: What’s New This Week

The following content is generally available worldwide, except where otherwise noted. All TV shows listed are for networks and streaming services based in the United States. All movies listed are those released in U.S. cinemas. This schedule is for content and events premiering this week and does not include content that has already been made available.

July 15 – July 21, 2024

TV/Streaming Services

All times listed are Eastern Time/Pacific Time, unless otherwise noted.

Investigation Disovery’s new three-episode docuseries “The Black Widower: The Six Wives of Thomas Randolph” premieres Monday, July 15 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

Monday, July 15

“Black Widower: The Six Wives of Thomas Randolph”
“Luckiest Son of a Gun” (Episode 101) **Series Premiere**
Monday, July 15, 9 p.m., Investigation Discovery

“Fatal Attraction”
“Downfall Comes in Deceit” (Episode 1735)
Monday, July 15, 9 p.m., TV One

“Contraband: Seized at Sea”
“Murky Waters” (Episode 101)
Monday, July 15, 9 p.m., Discovery

“Black Widower: The Six Wives of Thomas Randolph”
“Web of Wives” (Episode 102)
Monday, July 15, 10 p.m., Investigation Discovery

“Payback”
“A Game of Phones” (Episode 313)
Monday, July 15, 10 p.m., TV One

“Black Widower: The Six Wives of Thomas Randolph”
“This Is War” (Episode 103) **Series Finale**
Monday, July 15, 11 p.m., Investigation Discovery

Tuesday, July 16

“Homicide: Los Angeles” (Season 2)
Tuesday, July 16, 3 a.m. ET/12 a..m. PT, Netflix

“Mafia Spies” (Limited docuseries)
Tuesday, July 16, 3 a.m. ET/12 a..m. PT, Paramount+

“The Yara Gambirasio Case: Beyond Reasonable Doubt” (Limited docuseries)
Tuesday, July 16, 3 a.m. ET/12 a..m. PT, Netflix

“High Speed Chase”
“We Might Die Today” (Episode 204)
Tuesday, July 16, 9 p.m., Investigation Discovery

“Sasha Reid & the Midnight Order”
“Stallking the Lone Wolf” (Episode 102)
Tuesday, July 16, 10 p.m., Freeform

“Late Night Lockup”
“Lights, Camera, Robbery!” (Episode 206)
Tuesday, July 16, 10 p.m., Investigation Discovery

Wednesday, July 17

“Dateline”
“Devil’s Bargain”
Wednesday, July 17, 8 p.m., Oxygen

“American Detective With Lt. Joe Kenda”
“The Barrel” (Episode 408)
Wednesday, July 17, 9 p.m., Investigation Discovery

“Fatal Attraction”
“One for the Money” (Episode 1508)
Wednesday, July 17, 9 p.m., TV One

“Court Cam”
(Episode 730)
Wednesday, July 17, 9 p.m., A&E

“Court Cam”
(Episode 731)
Wednesday, July 17, 9:30 p.m., A&E

“Fear Thy Neighbor”
“Poking the Bear” (Episode 1004)
Wednesday, July 17, 10 p.m., Investigation Discovery

“For My Man”
“Jealousy’s Fatal Strike” (Episode 808)
Wednesday, July 17, 10 p.m., TV One

“My Strange Arrest”
“Can I Show You My Butt?” (Episode 203)
Wednesday, July 17, 10 p.m., A&E

“My Strange Arrest”
“Box-Headed Burglar” (Episode 204)
Wednesday, July 17, 10:30 p.m., A&E

Thursday, July 18

“Dateline”
“Detective Story”
Thursday, July 18, 8 p.m., Oxygen

“The First 48”
“Death By User Name”
Thursday, July 18, 8 p.m., A&E

“60 Days In”
“The Lost Clippers” (Episode 907)
Thursday, July 18, 9 p.m., A&E

“Caught!”
“Seconds From Disaster”
Thursday, July 18, 9 p.m., Discovery

“Caught!”
“Brawl in the Family”
Thursday, July 18, 9:30 p.m., Discovery

Friday, July 19

“How I Caught My Killer” (Season 2)
Friday, July 19, 3 a.m. ET/12 a..m. PT, Hulu

“Dateline”
TBA
Friday, July 19, 9 p.m., NBC

“20/20”
TBA
Friday, July 19, 9 p.m., ABC

Saturday, July 20

“Accident, Suicide or Murder”
“A Father’s Secret” (Episode 510)
Saturday, July 20, 8 p.m., Oxygen

“On Patrol: First Shift”
TBA
Saturday, July 20, 8 p.m., Reelz

“On Patrol: Live”
TBA
Saturday, July 20, 9 p.m., Reelz

“Deadly Waters With Captain Lee”
“Carnage of Catalina” (Episode 108) **Season Finale**
Saturday, July 20, 9 p.m., Oxygen

“Fatal Family Reunion” (One-hour special)
Saturday, July 20, 10 p.m., Investigation Discovery

Sunday, July 21

“Snapped”
“Olga Vasquez-Collazos” (Episode 3403)
Sunday, July 21, 6 p.m., Oxygen

“Sins of the South”
“Unholy Obsession” (Episode 111)
Sunday, July 21, 7 p.m., Oxygen

“American Monster”
“Love Is Deaf” (Episode 1206)
Sunday, July 21, 9 p.m., Investigation Discovery

“How It Really Happened”
“The Atlanta Olympic Bombing”
Sunday, July 21, 9 p.m., CNN

Movies in Theaters or on Home Video

No new true crime movies released in theaters or home video this week.

Radio/Podcasts

No new true crime podcast series premiering this week.

Events

Events listed here are not considered endorsements by this website. All ticket buyers with questions or concerns about the event should contact the event promoter or ticket seller directly.

All start times listed are local time, unless otherwise noted.

No new true crime events this week.

Review: ‘TikTok Star Murders,’ starring Rachel Britt, Julia Stuntz, Kelsey Christensen, Cameron Jackson, Joni E. Johnston, Andrea Marks and Aleida Wahn

July 8, 2024

by Carla Hay

Rachel Britt in “TikTok Star Murders” (Photo courtesy of Peacock)

“TikTok Star Murders”

Culture Representation: The documentary film “TikTok Star Murders” features an Asian and white group of people discussing the case of former TikTok personality Ali Abulaban (who used the screen name JinnKid), who has been convicted of the 2021 murders of his wife Ana Abulaban and her friend Rayburn Barron.

Culture Clash: Ali Abulaban, an admitted cocaine addict, grew increasingly jealous, controlling and abusive of Ana, and he murdered her and Barron shortly after she separated from him and moved into another home.  

Culture Audience: “TikTok Star Murders” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in true crime documentaries, but this documentary fails at telling a well-rounded and well-researched story.

Louis “Louie” Marinari in “TikTok Star Murders” (Photo courtesy of Peacock)

“TikTok Star Murders” has a tabloid-like focus on the most sensationalistic aspects of this notorious case and leaves out many important facts. This documentary mostly ignores Rayburn Barron, the other victim in this double homicide. Almost nothing is told about Barron in the documentary, except that he was a friend of Ana Abulaban, and they were both murdered in the same apartment in San Diego on October 21, 2021.

Ana’s estranged husband Ali Abulaban (who was born in 1992) confessed to the murders but claimed Ana (who was 28 when she died) provoked him into killing her and 29-year-old Barron. Ana and Barron were both murderd by gun violence in the apartment where Ana had moved after separating from Ali. Despite Ali’s claims that this was a manslaughter “crime of passion,” he was convicted in 2024 of two counts of first-degree murder. “TikTok Star Murders” was released before Ali received his prison sentence.

There is no director listed for this documentary, but George Plamondon is credited as the executive producer/showrunner of “TikTok Star Murders.” Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson is an executive producer through his production company G-Unit Films & Television. “TikTok Star Murders” is very formulaic in how it’s formatted, from the ominous music to the re-enactments that are shown in slow-motion to increase the drama. The documentary claims to be about putting the focus on the victims, but Ana is the only murder victim in this double homicide who gets extensive commentary in this movie. Barron is mentioned only as an afterthought.

“TikTok Star Murders” tells a tragic tale that is unfortunately common in situations where domestic abuse turns into murder. Ali Abulaban (who used the screen name JinnKid) was born in New York City, and he was a rising star in social media, mainly because of his comedy skits and celebrity impersonations. Ali was obsessed with the 1983 film “Scarface,” starring Al Pacino as cocaine kingpin Tony Montana, so Ali’s impressions were mostly of Tony Montana. TikTok was the social media platform where Ali was the most popular.

Like many social media personalities, Ali was also an aspiring actor who wanted to break into movies and television. He also had a troubled past. Ali joined the U.S. Air Force in 2013. He was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, where several U.S. military bases are located. Ana and her parents, who are originally from the Philippines, were also living in Okinawa because her father was in the military. This military location is how Ali and Ani met and began dating each other.

Ali’s military career was ruined in 2015, when he was dishonorably discharged for assaulting a friend of Ana’s. The “TikTok Star Murders” documentary should have given further details about this early warning sign of Ali’s violence, but this documentary has no interest in investigative journalism. The only “exclusives” this shoddily made documentary has to offer are some previously unreleased home videos and text messages of Ali being verbally abusive to Ana.

The documentary retells facts that are already known: After Ali was ousted in disgrace from the U.S. Air Force in 2015, he moved back home with his family in Bristow, Virginia. It was during this time that he started making social media videos that would go viral. He eventually was able to make enough money from social media for it to be a full-time job for him.

While Ali was in Bristow after his military discharge, Ana had moved back with her family to the Philippines when she found out that she was pregnant. Ali and Ana’s daughter Amira was born in the Philippines in 2016. The decision was made for Ana and Amira to move to the U.S. when they could get visas, which happened when Amira was still an infant. Ali and Ana got married and settled in Bristow. For many years, they presented a public image of being a happy couple in love.

Many of Ana’s female friends who grew up on the same Okinawa military base were now living in San Diego. After visiting them in San Diego, Ana fell in love with the city’s lifestyle and convinced Ali to move to San Diego, where they lived in an apartment building. According to people interviewed in the documentary, Ali agreed to this relocation mainly because San Diego’s proximity to Los Angeles would make it easier for him to get jobs in Hollywood movies and TV shows, compared to if he had stayed in Virginia. Ali never got hired for any work in the Hollywood entertainment industry. He was stuck doing social media videos.

This documentary gives very few details about Ali’s family. The only family member of Ali’s who is interviewed in this documentary is Louis “Louie” Mariani, who says he is Ali’s cousin. Mariani is vague about the family and will only say that Ali’s parents are Middle Eastern and conservative religious Muslims. Mariani describes Ali as a non-religious free spirit who didn’t follow a lot of expected traditions because Ali wanted to pursue a creative profession in the arts.

Mariani comments, “I really feel like Ali was meant to be a star.” Mariani also says the obvious about this murder tragedy: “I feel like this whole situation has turned my whole life upside down, as well as turned our whole family’s life upside down.” The problem is that Mariani doesn’t give any details about how the family reacted when they found out that Ali was abusing Ana. He also doesn’t offer any information to explain if Ali came from an abusive home or not, since many abusers have abusive childhoods.

The only clue that this documentary offers about Ali’s family is a video clip of Ana calling Ali’s mother during an argument when Ali was insulting Ana mercilessly in their San Diego apartment. Ali, who was obsessed with recording many things in his life, actually recorded this video. By then, the marriage had fallen apart, and Ana was telling Ali that she was going to leave him because he was abusive to her and she didn’t love him anymore.

In the video, Ana tells Ali’s mother that Ali is high on cocaine again. Ali’s mother can be heard on the phone saying that Ana should leave Ali. Ali’s mother also says that Ana and Amira can come live with her. Ali can be heard cursing and shouting that Ana is just trying to humiliate him. Ana eventually confided to friends that Ali was physically abusing her, but she often downplayed or hid how long this abuse had been going on.

Ali’s cocaine addiction is mentioned many times in the documentary, although the documentary never bothers to say or find out when Ali began abusing cocaine. However, Mariani and some of Ana’s friends mention that Ali became obvious about his cocaine abuse when he started to become a social media star. The documentary has no information about whether or not Ali or anyone else in his life tried to get him professional rehab/recovery treatment for his addiction.

According to the stories told in this documentary, Ali liked to have a big plastic bag of cocaine with him. He would take out the bag (even in public places where strangers could see him) and snort cocaine from it. On a few occasions (as seen in the documentary), Ali snorted cocaine on camera during his livestreams. Many people in his audience gave encouraging comments when he snorted cocaine on camera because it fit his Tony Montana wannabe persona.

One of this documentary’s biggest failings is that it has no information about Ana’s family. This huge void of information becomes even more noticeable as her friends talk about all the indications they saw that Ana was being abused. When did Ana’s family find out that Ali was abusing Ana? What did Ana’s family do to try to help Ana? The documentary never bothers to answer those questions.

Even if no one in Ana’s family wanted to be interviewed, information about what her family did or didn’t do to help her is what a responsible documentary would have included if it really wanted to tell the whole story of this domestic violence victim who was murdered. Instead, the only people speaking for Ana’s perspective are three of her friends: Rachel Britt, Julia Stuntz and someone identified only as Kayla, who says she knew Ana since they were teenagers in Okinawa.

Ana’s friends describe Ana as someone who blossomed from being an awkward and nerdy teenager into a stunningly beautiful woman who looked like she could be a model. Ana had a positive, kind and upbeat personality. She was a devoted and loving mother to Amira. After Ana moved to San Diego, her friends say that Ana got more into the physical fitness lifestyle.

However, in hindsight, Ana was very skilled at hiding a lot of her unhappiness and the physical abuse that she got from Ali. Her friends say that the biggest red flags that Ali was an abuser was how controlling, jealous and possessive he would be about Ana. Ali usually got very angry if Ana received more attention than he did, if she spent time with another man (even though she was a faithful wife, by all accounts), or if another man complimented Ana on her beauty. Ali often wrongfully accused Ana of cheating on him, even though Ali was the one in the marriage who eventually cheated, according to Ana’s friends.

As seen in videos shown in the documentary, toward the end of the marriage, Ali was openly calling Ana a “bitch” and a “whore” in his social media posts. He presented a narrative that Ana was an ungrateful immigrant who used him so that she could move to the United States and get resident alien status by marrying him. Ali’s misogynistic rants were “liked” by many people in his audience. And when Ana went public on TikTok that she was leaving her abusive marriage, Ali flew into a rage.

“TikTok Star Murders” only identifies people from Ali’s and Ana’s personal lives by their first names only, even though the full names of Britt, Stuntz and Mariani aren’t a secret because they testified in Ali’s trial and/or they’ve given other interviews to media outlets that reported their first and last names. Therefore, it seems unnecessary and fake for the documentary to try to make it look like they’re protecting these people’s privacy.

The only interviewee whose identity is completely hidden in the documentary is a young man using the alias Lucifer, who says he was Ali’s TikTok moderator. Lucifer is interviewed in the shadows to hide what his face looks like. His voice also sounds like it could have have been altered to protect his privacy. Lucifer says that he wants to be anonymous because he keeps his TikTok life separate from his real life. The only other person who speaks for Ali is a woman identified only as Rain, who has nothing insightful to say because she admits she only interacted with Ali as an “online friend” and never met him in person.

Also interviewed in the documentary are some journalists and people in law enforcement. Andrea Marks covered the case as a writer/reporter for Rolling Stone. Kelsey Christensen (a reporter for KSWB-TV, the Fox affiliate in San Diego) interviewed Ali in jail not long after he was arrested for the murders in 2021. Also interviewed in the documentary are former San Diego police officer Cameron Jackson; clinical/forensic psychologist and private investigator Dr. Joni E. Johnston, who was not involved in this case; and attorney Aleida Wahn, who does not represent Ali or anyone from the victims’ families and who did not work on this case.

Johnston mostly talks about domestic abuse and what to do in seeing warning signs and how to seek help. Ana’s friends also make impactful comments about not being bystanders to abuse. Britt says, “I want people not to be silent. Your truth is who you are … We need to be the change we want for the world.”

“TikTok Star Murders” competently serves as a cautionary tale about domestic abuse escalating into murder. The documentary also points out that what is presented as “truth” on social media can often be deliberately false or misleading of what’s happening in real life. None of this is surprising news, and this documentary just lazily regurgitates other people’s reporting on this case.

The documentary is incomplete and sloppy in too many areas, particularly when it comes to omitting a lot of relevant details. It’s mentioned in the documentary that media coverage of this case hardly ever mentions murder victim Barron, but the documentary does the same thing by ignoring Barron’s life story. Viewers will have a lot of questions about him that this documentary never answers.

How incomplete and sloppy in this documentary? “TikTok Star Murders” also doesn’t mention that Ana was married to someone else before she married Ali. Her first husband Shawn Torres was also in the U.S. military and knew Ali when they were stationed in Okinawa. Torres testified for the prosecution in Ali’s trial. That information isn’t in this documentary either. Ultimately, “TikTok Star Murders” doesn’t do anything to distinguish itself from the cheap, quickly made true crime documentaries that are churned out in a tacky manner and are the equivalent of ambulance chasers.

Peacock premiered “TikTok Star Murders” on June 25, 2024.

Review: ‘Searching for Amani,’ starring Simon Ali

July 1, 2024

by Carla Hay

Simon Ali in “Searching for Amani” (Photo courtesy of Backroads Pictures and RandomGood Films)

“Searching for Amani”

Directed by Debra Aroko and Nicole Gormley

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Searching for Amani” features a predominantly black African group of people (with a few white people) discussing the 2019 unsolved murder of Kenyan nature conservancy employee Steven Ali Apetet while he was working on the job and the conflicts over land occupation that seemingly led to his murder.

Culture Clash: Steven’s middle child Simon Ali, who is an aspiring journalist, investigates his father’s murder but experiences many obstacles.

Culture Audience: “Searching for Amani” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching documentaries about true crime and rural African culture.

Levis Ali and Simon Ali in “Searching for Amani” (Photo courtesy of Backroads Pictures and RandomGood Films)

“Searching for Amani” is an emotionally impactful documentary about a teenage journalist’s quest for the truth about his father’s unsolved murder in Kenya. The movie also examines conflicts between native Kenyans and wealthy white land owners. On another level, the documentary is an observation of how climate change and a severe drought in Kenya turned land occupation into a deadly crisis.

Directed by Debra Aroko and Nicole Gormley, “Searching for Amani” had its world premiere at the 2024 Tribeca Festival, where Aroko and Gormley won the Albert Maysles Award for Best New Documentary Director. The word “amani” means “peace” in Swahili. It’s reportedly the last word that Steven Ali Apetet said when he was shot to death on October 15, 2019. He was 41 years old. At the time he was murdered, Apetet was working at his job as a tour at the Laikipia Nature Conservancy.

No suspects or persons of interest have been named in this murder case. There were witnesses (including three tourists who were with Apetet) but they have not been able to identify the killer or killers. The most popular theory is that the killer or killers belonged to a group of pastoral herders who were in conflicts with the Laikipia Nature Conservancy owners about using the conservancy’s land to herd and feed animals.

“Searching for Amani” was filmed with Apetet’s middle son Simon Ali, an aspiring journalist, was 13 years old. The other people in Simon’s tight-knit and loving family include his widower mother Lucy and his siblings (listed in order from eldest to youngest) sister Faith, brother Ken, brother Levis and sister Charlene. Simon is the middle child and is the voiceover narrator for the documentary. At one point, Levis is tasked with doing some of the interviewing in the investigation because he’s older than Simon and is allowed to travel to certain places while Simon has to stay in school.

Apetet is described as kind, hard-working “peacemaker,” who took this job at the Laikipia Nature Conservancy (which is about 100,000 acres of land) so he could afford to send his children to good schools. Apetet has been an employee at the conservancy for about 20 years and was shot in the morning, near the beginning of his works shift that day. In voiceover narration, Simon says that people tell him that out of all of his siblings, his personality is the most like his father’s personality.

Simon comments, “Everyone in my family wants justice. Why did they want to kill him?” Simon’s investigation includes interviews with several people, including some of his father’s former co-workers and Laikipia Nature Conservancy owner Sveva Makena Gallmann, whose mother Kuki Gallmann bought the conservancy. The former co-workers interviewed include mechanic Enock Nodkia, security officer Isaac Kateiya, lodge staffer Frederick Gikandi Kamuri and botanist Thomas Olekaichu. One of the most compelling parts of the documentary is when one of the tourist witnesses is tracked down and interviewed.

Simon (who comes from a farming family) gets support from his best friend/schoolmate Haron Lenges, who comes from a pastoral herding family. During the filming of the documentary, Simon sees Lenges’ family go through hardships because of the drought. It helps Simon have a more personal understanding of pastoral herders feeling desperate to use land to keep their herds alive. Simon’s father had many responsibilities in his job. One of them was to remove trespassers.

It’s mentioned in the documentary that the journalist Simon whom admires the most is Kenyan TV journalist/talk show host Jeff Koinange, who hosts the talk show “Jeff Koinange Live” on Citizen TV. Koinange is known for his investigative work in social and political issues, especially those pertaining to Africa. A montage epilogue in “Searching for Amani” show what happens in Simon’s quest to eventually meet Koinange.

“Searching for Amani” has cinematography by Simon Ali, Campbell Brewer and co-director Gormley. Simon, who is intelligent and inquisitive, clearly had a passion for journalism and has a bright future ahead in this profession. The family’s heartbreak over not knowing the full story of what happened in this tragic murder might never go away. However, “Searching for Amani” is a testament that Simon and the rest of his family are admirably carrying out the wonderful legacy of their departed family member who was taken way too soon from them.

Review: ‘The Speedway Murders,’ starring Essie Randles, Nya Cofie, Davida McKenzie and Jo Cumpston

June 21, 2024

by Carla Hay

Theresa Jeffries in “The Speedway Murders” (Photo courtesy of Vertical)

“The Speedway Murders”

Directed by Adam Kamien and Luke Rynderman

Culture Representation: The documentary film “The Speedway Murders” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few black people) who are connected in some way to the Burger Chef murders, a notorious unsolved case about the abductions and murders of four employees of a Burger Chef restaurant in Speedway, Indiana, in 1978.

Culture Clash: People have different theories about who committed these crimes.

Culture Audience: “The Speedway Murders” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in true crime documentaries about unsolved mysteries, but the documentary’s quality and credibility are significantly lowered by excessive use of scripted scenes depicting the ghosts of the murder victims.

Essie Randles, Jo Cumpston, Davida McKenzie and Nya Cofie in “The Speedway Murders” (Photo courtesy of Vertical)

The true crime documentary “The Speedway Murders” has a good mix of interviews about the 1978 Burger Chef murders in Speedway, Indiana. But the movie is ruined by tacky drama scenes of the murder victims as ghosts trying to solve their own murders. Many documentaries have dramatic re-enactments. However, it’s just downright exploitative for a documentary to fabricate dramatic scenes that speculate what the murder victims would say and do after they died. These “ghost” scenes do not help the real-life investigation of this unsolved case. And they certainly don’t help the victims’ loved ones.

Directed by Adam Kamien and Luke Rynderman, “The Speedway Murders” would have been sufficient without these unnecessary ghost scenes. When these ghost scenes show up (and they are about half of the movie), they are utterly distracting and diminish the impact of the compelling interviews in the film. “The Speedway Murders,” which is a production from Australia, filmed these dramatic scenes in Australia with cast members who are from Australia or New Zealand but are portraying Americans. The interview scenes with non-actors were filmed mostly in Indiana.

Perhaps “The Speedway Murders” filmmakers wanted to do something different in a true crime documentary by having these ghost scenes. However, it comes across as tone-deaf filmmaking where it looks like the filmmakers spent more time on the movie’s production/set design and writing the screenplay’s fictional dialogue for the “ghost” characters than doing any real investigative journalism. The documentary offers one “bombshell” interview at the every end. But considering that many of the so-called witnesses who are interviewed in the documentary are admittedly shady people with a history of lying and criminal activities, viewers can have a lot of skepticism about who is credible.

The facts of the Burger Chef murders are retold at the beginning of the documentary. On November 17, 1978, the Burger Chef (a fast-food restaurant) in Speedway was found unlocked and unattended late at night when the restaurant was supposed to be closed and locked up. The safe in the restaurant’s back room was open, in what looked like an apparent robbery. The four Burger Chef employees who were supposed to close the restaurant were missing and found murdered about 20 miles away in a wooded area in nearby Johnson County on November 19, 1978.

The murdered Burger Chef employees were 20-year-old Jayne Friedt, the assistant manager of the restaurant, who died by stabbing; 17-year-old Ruth Ellen Shelton, who died by gun shooting; 16-year-old Daniel “Danny” Davis, who died by gun shooting; and 16-year-old Mark Flemmonds, who was beaten to death. Some reports have listed Shelton’s age as 18 at the time these kidnapping and murders happened. But her younger sister Theresa Jeffries, who is interviewed in “The Speedway Murders,” says that Shelton was 17 and one month away from turning 18 at the time the crime happened.

In “The Speedway Murders” scripted dramatic scenes, Friedt is portrayed by Essie Randles; Shelton is portrayed by Davida McKenzie; Davis is portrayed by Jo Cumpston (also known a Joseph Zada); and Flemmonds is portrayed by Nya Cofie. Other cast members are in re-enactments portraying various witnesses or persons of interest. The cast members depicting the murder victims have more screen time than anyone else, which is probably why the movie’s marketing materials list them as the stars of the movie. The “ghosts” of the murder victims are only seen at the movie’s reconstruction of the Burger Chef restaurant that was the scene of the crime.

Friedt is depicted as the feisty and outspoken one in the group. Shelton is shown as introverted and somewhat nerdy. Davis is portrayed as a generic regular guy. Flemmonds’ personality is presented as amiable and fun-loving. The cast members in these roles have credible American accents and give adequate performances, but the dialogue they’re given in this movie is often cringeworthy. For example, there’s a scene where the ghost of Friedt exclaims: “I’m not just a footnote in a murder mystery … I’m me!”

A major problem with the real-life investigation is that when police showed up at the scene in the early-morning hours of November 18, 1978, they thought that the restaurant was left unlocked and unattended by irresponsible employees and did not think that the missing employees had been kidnapped—even though worried family members of the employees had reported them missing. The police let other Burger Chef employees clean up the restaurant so that it could be open for business, not knowing at the time that the restaurant was a crime scene. Therefore, valuable evidence was destroyed, thrown away or contaminated.

“The Speedway Murders” has interviews with four current or former police detectives with close knowledge of the case: Todd McComas, a retired Indiana state police detective who was assigned the case in 1998; James Cramer, a retired Indiana state police detective who was the lead investigator on the case continuously from 1981 to 1986 and intermittently from 1986 to 1999, the year he retired; Mel Willsey, a captain of Indiana’s Marion County Sheriff’s Office, Criminal Division, who joined the case in the mid-1980s; and Bill Dalton, an Indiana state police sergeant who is currently the lead investigator of the case.

Dalton is the police investigator who has the least to say in the documentary and only offers vague commentary, such as he thinks it’s still possible for the case to be solved. Dalton comments, “I’m chasing answers … for [the victims’] family members. They deserve closure.” It looks like the “Speedway Murder” filmmakers were only able to get brief comments from Dalton at a press conference where Jeffries and Dalton were two of the speakers.

Cramer is the former police investigator who is shown the most in the documentary. He responds to accusations that the original team of investigating police re-staged the crime scene in crime scene photos, in order to cover up the police’s major blunder of letting the crime scene be cleaned, thereby ruining or disposing of crucial evidence. Cramer says, “I don’t know if I would characterize it as re-staging. All I know it was an attempt to pass off photographs as if [they] were actual crime scene photos.”

Cramer adds, “It became common knowledge amongst all the investigators that the crime scene wasn’t handled properly … There should’ve been pictures, fingerprints. People should’ve been interviewed—witnesses and so forth. I don’t believe much was done.”

McComas is the former investigator who is the most adamant in saying his theory of who committed these horrific murders. The documentary does a fairly good job of laying out and explaining four of the most popular theories about who the culprits are. Almost everyone with a theory believes that there was more than one culprit who kidnapped the murder victims from Burger Chef.

Most of the theories and witness statements mention two unidentified white men in their 20s as the most likely perpetrators. One man (described as the “leader”) was about 5’8″ with dark hair and a beard. The other man (the less talkative one) was described as younger, taller (about 6 feet tall, give or take a few inches), dark-haired and clean-shaven. The culprits were widely believed to be driving a van (witnesses can’t agree on the color of the van) when they arrived at the restaurant. This van was also believed to be the same vehicle that the Burger Chef employees were forced into during the kidnappings.

On the night of the Burger Chef kidnappings, two men who fit these descriptions approached witnesses Mary Rhines and George Nichols (who were dating each other at the time) in the Burger Chef parking lot. Rhines and Nichols, who are interviewed in “The Speedway Murders,” say that they were smoking marijuana in the Burger Chef parking lot when they were approached by the two men, close to the time that the kidnappings were believed to have occurred. The man with the beard was the only one who spoke to Rhines and Nichols, and he told them to leave because some young people had gotten busted for committing vandalism at that same restaurant. Rhines and Nichols left because they didn’t want to get in trouble for smoking marijuana.

Here are the theories presented in “The Speedway Murders” documentary:

The Robber Gang Theory: Prior to the murders, a group of armed robbers had been stealing money and other valuables from several Burger Chef locations in Indiana. S.W. Wilkins and Gregg Steinke, two men who confessed to the robberies and spent time in prison for these crimes, have denied any involvement in the Burger Chef murders. However, McComas is certain that Wilkins and Steinke are the most likely suspects for the Burger Chef murders because they fit the witness descriptions of the two men seen in the parking lot before the kidnappings happened. McComas says that Wilkins and Steinke also lived in Johnson County near the rural area where the murder victims’ bodies were found.

The Don Forrester Theory: On January 9, 1989, Indiana prison inmate Don Forrester (a convicted rapist) gave a videotaped confession to police by saying that he helped in the kidnapping of the Burger Chef employees by hustling them into the van. Forrester did not name the other culprits, but he said they were all under the influence of drugs at the time. Forrester said he killed Davis and Shelton and gave details of the crime scene. It was later proven that Forrester could’ve gotten those details from crime scene photos that he saw in the police station where he was interrogated. In his confession, he said that Jayne Friedt was the main target of the kidnapping because she owed $15,000 related to cocaine deals. Jayne’s brother James “Jimmy” Friedt was a convicted drug dealer, and Forrester said that Jayne was mixed up in drug dealing too. Willsey believes this theory, but admits that Forrester (who died of cancer in 2006) had questionable credibility because Forrester changed/recanted his story many times and failed multiple polygraph tests about this confession.

The Speedway Bomber Theory: During a six-day period, beginning in early September 1978, bombs were detonated in various parts of Speedway. Brett Kimberlin was eventually convicted of the bombings and spent 15 years in prison for it. No one died in the bombings, but a man named Carl DeLong had to have one of his legs amputated because of a bomb injury, and he committed suicide in 1983. The theory is that the bomber was also involved in the Burger Chef murders. Kimberlin, who is interviewed in the documentary, denies anything to do with the bombings, the Burger Chef kidnappings/murders, or his suspected involvement in the 1978 murder of Julia Scyphers, who was the mother of Kimberlin’s girlfriend at the time. Kimberlin will only admit that in 1978, he was definitely a marijuana dealer. He describes any reports that he’s a bomber, kidnapper or murderer as “fake news.”

The Jeff Reed/Tim Willoughby Theory: Allen Pruitt, a mechanic who spent time in the same prison as Jimmy Friedt, claims that the Burger Chef murders happened because of a drug deal gone wrong. Pruitt (who died in 2022) is interviewed in the documentary. In his documentary interview, Pruitt says that a drug dealer named Jeff Reed had a dispute with Jimmy Friedt over drug dealing issues, and Jayne Friedt was involved because she was allowing this Burger Chef location to be used as a transaction location for Jimmy Friedt’s drug deals. Pruitt says on the night of the Burger Chef kidnappings, he saw Reed force Flemmonds, Shelton and Davis into Reed’s van in the parking lot of the restaurant, and Reed’s friend Tim Willoughby (also a known drug dealer) was nearby having an argument with Jayne Friedt. Pruitt said he saw the van drive off but didn’t think at the time that anyone had been kidnapped. Pruitt (who says he gave this information to police years ago) states emphatically that Reed and Willoughby committed the Burger Chef kidnappings and murders, based on what Pruitt says that he saw that night.

One of the problems with this theory is that Willoughby (who was clean-shaven and slightly resembled the clean-shaven mystery man in the Burger Chef parking lot that night) is believed to have gone missing before the Burger Chef murders. Willoughby was reported as last seen in June 1978. He has never been found. The reason for his disappearance—as well as the possibility that Willoughby could have still be alive in November 1978—remain unknown. Another problem is that Pruitt admits that he was very intoxicated when he saw Reed, Willoughby and the Burger Chef employees on the night of the kidnappings. Pruitt’s impaired state of mind makes Pruitt a less credible witness than if he had been clean and sober at the time he says he saw the suspicious activity that night.

The documentary also includes a more compelling interview with Tim Boyer, who was a friend of Reed’s in a clique they called the Riff Raff Social Club, which had Reed as the unofficial leader. Reed and his van matched the descriptions from witnesses who say they saw a bearded man in the Burger Chef parking lot close to the time that the kidnappings were believed to have taken place. Boyer says in the documentary that in 1978, not long after the Burger Chef Murders, Reed confessed to Boyer that he and Willoughby committed the crimes. Boyer also claims that Reed told incriminating details to Boyer as proof.

According to Boyer, this is what happened: Reed and Willoughby went to the Burger Chef restaurant to rob the place, but victim Flemmonds saw the intruders and confronted them in a back room. The criminals assaulted Flemmonds, possibly knocking him unconscious. The other three Burger Chef employees also saw a crime taking place, so all four were kidnapped and murdered because the employees were witnesses.

Boyer said he kept this secret for decades because he didn’t want to be a snitch. In the documentary, former police investigator Cramer seems to think this is the strongest theory of what happened in the Burger Chef murder case, but since there’s no proof, it’s unlikely this case will ever be solved. Reed, who died in 2011, was never formally interviewed by police about this case. Cramer said he once informally confronted Reed about the Burger Chef kidnapping/murder case in an unnamed year after Reed had been arrested and was out on bail for an unrelated case. Cramer says that in this conversation, Reed did not make any comments when asked if Reed was involved in the Burger Chef kidnapping/murder case.

“The Speedway Murders” also has interviews with Russ McQuaid, a reporter for Indianapolis TV station WXIN/Fox 59; true crime podcaster Chris Davis; a man named Charlie (no last name is given), who says he was Jayne Friedt’s boyfriend in 1978; Kirk Thompson, a friend of Flemmonds’ who had plans to meet up with him after Flemmonds’ work shift ended that night; Ginger Anthony, a Burger Chef employee who asked Flemmonds to substitute for her that night because she wanted to go on a date with someone; Norma Davis, the mother of Daniel Davis; David Brosman, a Speedway bombing witness; and Jean Bland, a witness who claims to have seen a man forcing the Burger Chef employees into a van, although she admits she never saw the front of the man’s face.

Jeffries is given a small amount of screen time to talk about her murdered sister. Thompson says that he and Flemmonds liked to hang out at a youth-oriented nightclub called the Galaxy, which allowed people under the age of 21. There’s a clip of an archival TV interview with Robert Flemmonds (Mark Flemmonds’ father) where he mentions that Jayne Friedt told him that Mark was like her “protector” on the job. Norma Davis says her son Daniel called her earlier that evening to tell her that he was asked to help close the restaurant and he would be working later than usual that night.

Almost all of these interviewees have something interesting to say. It’s too bad that “The Speedway Murders” filmmakers chose to waste so much screen time on cheesy re-enactments (including the obligatory slow-motion shots) and outright fabricated dialogue of the murder victims discussing and debating various theories about their own murders. Not surprisingly, the “ghost” of Jayne Friedt vehemently denies she was involved in drug dealing.

In an interview for this documentary, Jeffries says that too often in media coverage about murders, the victims don’t get as much coverage as the suspected or convicted killers. “The Speedway Murders” is certainly guilty of that too. Despite spending an offensive amount of time on scenes showing actors portraying ghosts of the murder victims, these drama scenes and the rest of the movie tell almost no details about these victims before their lives were cruelly taken away.

What were the hopes and dreams of these murder victims? What were some of the most memorable things that they did when they were alive? Who were the people who were most important to them? Don’t expect the documentary to answer these questions. Instead of offering more insight into who the murder victims were, “The Speedway Murders” gives way too much screen time to showing these murder victims as babbling ghosts who’ve returned to the scene of the crime.

And if you’re still not sure that this misguided documentary is like a slap in the face to the victims and their loved ones, then the last scene in the film removes all doubt. This final scene is obviously manipulative and intended to make viewers cry by showing a “what if” scenario speculating what would’ve happened if the victims hadn’t been kidnapped and murdered that night. Simply put: “The Speedway Murders” is shameless exploitation of murder victims. If people want to know more about this tragic case, there are much better resources—including Investigation Discovery’s 2022 documentary “Murders at the Burger Joint,” which has been renamed “The Burger Chef Murders”—that have information without exploiting the victims.

Vertical released “The Speedway Murders” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and on VOD on June 21, 2024.

Review: ‘Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme,’ starring Joslyn Jensen, Craig Cole, Robert Henry, John Verrastro, Michael Finnegan, Nancy Dillon and Doug Thompson

June 12, 2024

by Carla Hay

A blended photo of convicted fraudster Zachary Horwitz, also known as actor Zach Avery, in “Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme”

Directed by David Darg

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” features a predominantly white group of people (with one person of South Asian heritage) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Zach Horwitz, an actor using the stage name Zach Avery, conned people out of an estimated $690 million in a Ponzi scheme where he sought investors for his fraudulent movie licensing company.  

Culture Audience: “Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in true crime documentaries about con artists.

Joslyn Jensen in “Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” is a true crime documentary with details that are so outrageous, they sound like they could be in a scripted Hollywood movie. This compelling documentary doesn’t reveal any new information about the case of convicted fraudster Zachary Horwitz, also known as actor Zach Avery. The film’s surprise ending is gimmicky but proves a point about false perception versus factual reality.

Directed by David Darg, “Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” is one of those true documentaries that takes most of its information from what was already reported in the news media and then turns it into a non-fiction film. The movie has a twist that is clearly intended to make “Bad Actor” stand out from other documentaries. However, the twist will probably be divisive to some viewers. “Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” had its world premiere at the 2024 Tribeca Festival.

Horwitz was arrested in 2021 on federal fraud charges that he swindled about $690 million from people through his company 1inMM Productions (pronounced “One in a Million Productions”) through phony licensing deals for movies. He was a Los Angeles-area actor and producer (mostly in obscure independent films that were dramas or action flicks) but lived a lavish lifestyle that ended up leading to his downfall. He was convicted in 2021, after pleading guilty to one count of securities fraud totaling $227 million. In 2022, Horwitz was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison and ordered to pay $230 million in restitution.

The case of Horwitz has gotten a lot of media coverage, so the documentary doesn’t waste time with a “whodunit” format. “Bad Actor” is a retrospective look at how Horwitz was able to fool and defraud so many people. He forged a lot of convincing-looking documents and had meticulous records to keep track of his lies. Horwitz, who frequently dropped the name of on-again/off-again Starbucks CEO Schultz as someone who endorsed him, also faked email and text messages from executives at major media companies such as HBO and Netflix.

Joslyn Jensen appears on camera as the interviewer, she does the voiceover narration, and she talks about her choices regarding what will be put in the movie. Viewers will draw their own conclusions about her role in the making of this documentary. “Bad Actor” also features footage of the audition process for people being cast for the documentary’s re-enactment scenes. Robert Jumper has the role of Horwitz in these re-enactments. The auditioning actors are also asked for their thoughts on this case, and some of those comments are in the movie.

Born in Berkeley, California, on December 5, 1986, Horwitz was raised in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he was a popular football player at Carroll High School. Steve Clark, a former Carroll High School classmate of Horwitz, says in the documentary that Horwitz never pursued acting in high school and was known mostly for being an athlete. Even though Horwitz didn’t show a public interest in acting when he was in high school, Clark and fellow Carroll High School alum Robbie McKerr remember that Horwitz was known for exaggerating or outright lying about himself. For example, McKerr says Horwitz lied about playing football for Indiana University Bloomington.

After graduating from Indiana University Bloomington in 2010, Horwitz moved to Chicago with his live-in-girlfriend Mallory Hagedorn, an aspiring wedding planner. Horwitz’s mother inherited “millions” from her deceased second husband Robert Kozlowski, who was Horwitz’s stepfather. It’s widely presumed that some of this inheritance was used as the seed money for the juice bar that Horwitz opened in Chicago.

By all accounts, the juice bar was a legitimate business, even though Horwitz would lie to some people by saying that Starbucks billionaire Schultz was an investor in the juice bar. Horwitz would later use Schultz’s name for his criminal fraud schemes. Horwitz would falsely claim to various people that Schultz was an investor and mentor.

The juice bar ultimately failed, so Horwitz and Hagedorn moved to Los Angeles, where he began a career as an actor named Zach Avery. Horwitz and Hagedorn were married from 2014 to 2021, and they have two children together. It was in Los Angeles that Horwitz began his fraud of being the leader of the start-up company 1inMM Productions, which claimed to license movies overseas for major movie studies and companies such as HBO and Netflix. It’s mentioned in the documentary that Horwitz purposely chose real titles of obscure movies to make everything look legitimate.

The Chicago-based investment firm JJMT was listed as an “advisory firm” for 1inMM Productions. Over time, as widely reported, Horwitz would use the millions of dollars that he stole to fund a lavish lifestyle and “pay for play” schemes, where he would pay money to filmmakers to cast him in their movies and sometimes be listed as an executive producer of these movies. “Bad Actor” doesn’t name any specific movie where Horwitz bought his way into an acting role. However, the documentary pokes fun at all the bad acting he has in these movies with cleverly edited film clips from movies such as 2018’s “Farming,” 2018’s “The White Crow,” 2020’s “Last Moment of Clarity,” 2021’s “The Devil Below” and 2021’s “The Gateway.”

“Bad Actor” has the expected interviews with other people who knew Horwitz as friends or acquaintances who describe him as being very convincing and charming, which was a personality mask for the cold-blooded way he committed his crimes. Horwitz and his family members are not interviewed. However, the documentary includes some archival interview clips that Horwitz did with independent media outlets, as well as some personal videos that were recorded when he was amongst friends and family members.

Some of his fraud victims are also interviewed. Craig Cole (an aspiring actor who said he was Horwitz’s best friend for years) and screenwriter Robert Henry are the two victims in the documentary who get the most screen time with their heart-wrenching stories about losing their life savings to Horwitz. Cole says that Horwitz went as far as targeting Cole’s parents, who also lost their life savings in Horwitz’s elaborate con scheme.

Also interviewed are law enforcement officials (FBI agents Doug Thompson and John Verrastro) and journalists (Michael Finnegan of The Los Angeles Times and Nancy Dillon of Rolling Stone) who were involved with or very familiar with the case. “Bad Actor” interviewees also include Bill Witte (a retired Indiana University Bloomington professor of economics, who explains how Ponzi schemes work) and Doug Lynam, Ph. D., who describes the psychology of a narcissistic, possibly sociopathic con artist.

“Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” at times has a very dark comedic tone aimed at Horwitz, but the movie never glorifies him or exploits his victims. It’s yet another story about how easy it is for some people to be fooled by fake images and false hope if all of it is presented in a way that they think is credible. The ending of “Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” is meant to place doubt in the minds of viewers who think they could never be fooled by a scam.

Neon will release “Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” in select U.S. cinemas on June 14, 2024.

Review: ‘MoviePass, MovieCrash,’ starring Stacy Spikes, Hamet Watt, Mitch Lowe, Chris Kelly, Nathan McAlone, Jason Guerrasio and Daniel Kaufman

June 2, 2024

by Carla Hay

Stacy Spikes and Hamet Watt in “MoviePass, MovieCrash” (Photo courtesy of Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images/HBO)

“MoviePass, Movie Crash”

Directed by Muta’Ali

Culture Representation: The documentary film “MoviePass, MovieCrash” features a predominantly white group of people (with some black people) discussing the rise, the fall and the attempted comeback of MoviePass, a subscription service for movie tickets.

Culture Clash: MoviePass struggled for years to become a popular company, until a controversial management team took over and made radical business decisions that rapidly increased subscribers, but the company crashed and burned due to overspending and extreme financial losses.

Culture Audience: “MoviePass, MovieCrash” will appeal primarily to people who are moviegoers, entrepreneurs or business investors and are interested in watching documentaries about how greed and arrogance can ruin businesses.

Stacy Spikes and Ted Farnsworth in “MoviePass, MovieCrash” (Photo courtesy of MoviePass/HBO)

The documentary “MoviePass, MovieCrash” (directed by Muta’Ali, also known as Muta’Ali Muhammad) offers some interesting behind-the-scenes perspectives of the rise, fall and attempted comeback of MoviePass, the first popular subscription service for movie tickets in the United States. The film editing brings some comedic touches to a harsh business story. Because so much of what happened to MoviePass has been widely reported elsewhere, not much is surprising in this documentary, and there are glaring omissions.

For example, “MoviePass, MovieCrash” does not mention AMC Theatres’ subscription service AMC Stubs A-List, which launched in June 2018 as an extension of the already existing AMC Stubs rewards program. AMC Stubs A-List was one of the biggest factors in the downfall of MoviePass in 2018. And although “MoviePass, MovieCrash” gives some commentary on the apparent racism behind white executives sidelining and eventually ousting MoviePass co-founders Stacy Spikes and Hamet Watt (who are both African American), there’s no mention of the obvious sexism at MoviePass. At the peak of MoviePass’ popularity, all of the company’s top executives and board of directors consisted of men. “MoviePass, MovieCrash” had its world premiere at the 2024 SXSW Film & TV Festival.

“MoviePass, MovieCrash” tells the company’s story in mostly chronological order, featuring interviews with Spikes and many of the company’s former employees, investors and subscribers. Headquartered in New York City, MoviePass was founded in 2011 and didn’t become a profitable company until 2023. Before co-founding MoviePass, Spikes (who was born and raised in Houston) had experiences in the 1990s as a marketing executive at Miramax and as a product manager at Motown Records. In 1997, Spikes founded the Urbanworld Film Festival as a showcase for filmmakers of color. Watt’s previous experience was as an entrepreneur of various small businesses.

According to what Spikes says in the documentary, MoviePass was originally conceived as a subscription service version of the Urbanworld Film Festival. The idea for MoviePass morphed from not just being limited to one film festival but to being a nationwide service for movie ticketing at corporate-owned and independently owned movie theaters. These movie theaters would get a cut of the revenue from tickets purchased through MoviePass.

The MoviePass business model was that subscribers would pay a monthly fee to watch a certain number of movies per month at a wide selection of movie theaters. One of the original MoviePass subscription plans was $39.95 for 30 movies a month, with a limit of one movie per day. Tickets could be booked on a MoviePass app, and a MoviePass card that operated like a debit card would redeem the tickets at participating movie theaters.

However, it was difficult for this business model to be profitable, as long as numerous subscribers were frequent moviegoers and paying only a fraction of what they would pay for tickets without this MoviePass subscription. In other words, MoviePass was losing money from all the ticket discounts that MoviePass subscribers were getting from these subscriptions. MoviePass did not have any other source of sales revenue to offset these financial losses, and the company had to rely on investors to keep MoviePass in business.

From 2011 to 2016, Spikes was the CEO of MoviePass, while Watt was the board chairman who mostly dealt with finding investors. The company’s biggest problem during this time period was that the subscriber base stalled somewhere around 20,000 subscribers. Another big setback was that MoviePass temporarily lost a business deal with Movietickets.com (partially owned by AMC Theatres) in 2015, when Adam Aron replaced Gerry Lopez as CEO of AMC Theatres. Lopez is interviewed in the documentary, while Aron is not. Lopez says that MoviePass was beneficial to AMC Theatres in the early-to-mid-2010s.

One of the original major investors in MoviePass was Chris Kelly, a former Facebook executive who briefly dabbled in politics. (In 2010, Kelly lost the California district attorney’s Democratic primary to Kamala Harris.) As a major investor in MoviePass, Kelly also became a member of MoviePass’ board of directors. Because he invested so much money in MoviePass, Kelly was eventually given two seats on the board. Kelly, who is interviewed in the documentary, says that there came a point in time when he had no more money that he could invest in MoviePass, so he urged Spikes and Watt to find other big-money investors.

Mitch Lowe, a former executive for Redbox and Netflix, joined MoviePass in 2016 as CEO and as a board member. Spikes was made chief operating officer (COO) under this new management structure, while Watt began to be sidelined. In the documentary, Lowe openly admits that he didn’t think Watt was as valuable as Spikes to MoviePass at the time.

On the recommendation of Lowe, a big-talking executive named Ted Farnsworth (who was CEO of analytics firm Helios and Matheson at the time) was brought to MoviePass as a chief investor. Farnsworth had a background in finance, public relations and marketing with several start-up companies. Farnsworth told the MoviePass executives that MoviePass couldn’t be profitable until MoviePass had at least 1 million subscribers. Spikes says in the documentary that he constantly raised concerns to Lowe, Farnsworth and other MoviePass board members about the sustainability of this goal.

Spikes says Farnsworth and Lowe repeatedly dismissed Spikes’ warnings that MoviePass’ financial losses would become too large to handle with more than 1 million subscribers, unless MoviePass figured out a way for the company to become profitable. There was also the issue of MoviePass being understaffed and unable to keep up with any rapid increase in subscribers. Lowe’s reaction was to act like Spikes was being negative and difficult: “He was not being a constructive member of the team,” Lowe says in the documentary about Spikes.

In the documentary, Spikes uses an airplane analogy to explain MoviePass’ rapid growth plans: “We’re kind of learning to build the plane mid-flight. And changing it from a crop duster to a 747 that can handle large volumes of people. We were not prepared to keep running at that pace.” Spikes says his recommendation to “put the brakes” on MoviePass’ plan for rapid growth was often ignored.

Lowe wanted MoviePass to quickly reach the goal of 1 million subscribers and get a lot of media attention for it. Lowe takes full credit in the documentary for coming up with the idea of reducing the MoviePass subscription price to $9.95 per month, which would still give subscribers a “pass” to see one movie every day at participating theaters. And sure enough, MoviePass had a meteoric increase in subscribers and got a lot of media attention from late 2017 through all of 2018. By then, Spikes and Watt had been pushed out of the company.

In August 2017, Helios and Matheson bought a majority stake in MoviePass. Spikes and Watt were removed from MoviePass’ board of directors and forced out of the company. Spikes and Watt got to keep their stock shares in MoviePass after they were fired from the company. However, under the terms of their exit deal, Spikes and Watt could not buy or sell these shares for a 12-month period after being dismissed from MoviePass. According to Spikes, his shares in MoviePass were worth about $80 million when he was ousted from MoviePass in 2017. A year later, those shares would essentially be worthless.

MoviePass’ rapid rise and fall have been well-documented in the media and elsewhere. By December 2017, MoviePass had 1 million subscribers. By February 2018, MoviePass had 2 million subscribers. By June 2018, MoviePass had 3 million subscribers. Lowe and Farnsworth became the new faces of MoviePass, with many media outlets incorrectly identifying Lowe and Farnsworth as the founders of MoviePass. Lowe and Farnsworth soaked up all the publicity they were getting for being “visionary” leaders of a “hot” company that was a popular choice for stock investors.

Still, the question remained: How was MoviePass going to actually become profitable? In media interviews, Farnsworth and Lowe kept saying that MoviePass was planning to sell its customer data to movie studios. However, they avoided answering questions on how much this data was actually worth to make up for the hundreds of millions of dollars that MoviePass was losing.

Meanwhile, MoviePass went on a spending spree. The company spent millions on promoting MoviePass at major film festivals and other events. According to the documentary, MoviePass reportedly spent $1 million at the 2018 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and hired mismatched spokespeople—such as former basketball star Dennis Rodman and social media influencer OK Bunny—to promote MoviePass at the festival. OK Bunny is interviewed in the documentary, and she still seems a little confused by what MoviePass was doing at Coachella and why she was paired with Rodman.

There were other ill-conceived business decisions, such as MoviePass Ventures and production company MoviePass Films, which invested heavily in the 2018 flop biopic “Gotti,” starring John Travolta as notorious Mafia boss John Gotti. Lowe says that MoviePass thought that its subscriber base would be the most likely to buy tickets to any movies that MoviePass produced. The failure of “Gotti” proved that business theory wrong. MoviePass also purchased the outdated Moviefone, a financially declining company for movie tickets and showtimes.

There were helicopters and private jets bearing the MoviePass logo. And several people in the documentary say that Lowe and especially Farnsworth were caught up in acting like “rock star” executives who wanted to party with celebrities. Lowe doesn’t deny any of it and makes this excuse for why he and other high-ranking MoviePass executives got the biggest perks from the spending sprees, while the lower-level employees were overworked and understaffed: “Not all roles get to party.”

Farnsworth is not interviewed in “MoviePass, MovieCrash,” which depicts Farnsworth as the story’s biggest villain and a prime example of callous corporate greed. There is no mention in the documentary if the “MoviePass, Movie Crash” filmmakers attempted to interview him, or if Farnsworth declined any requests for comment. It’s mentioned in the documentary that Farnsworth abused his power at MoviePass to make nepotism hires of family members and friends who were inexperienced or unqualified.

One of these nepotism hires was Robert “Bob” Ellis (Diana Ross’ first ex-husband), who is mentioned but not interviewed in the documentary. Ellis, who was put on MoviePass’ payroll as a marketing consultant, is described as a Hollywood hanger-on, photographer and close friend of Farnsworth. He was part of the MoviePass executive clique that went on luxury trips that were paid for by the company.

Also mentioned but not interviewed in the documentary is Khalid Itum, an inexperienced MoviePass employee who quickly rose through the company ranks and eventually became MoviePass’ vice president of business development. Itum is named as one of the biggest offenders in the wild spending sprees at MoviePass. The documentary includes some audio clips of recordings of MoviePass staff meetings. In these recordings, Itum and Lowe seem to be willfully in denial about how their overspending was very damaging to MoviePass.

in July 2018, during the weekend that “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” was released in theaters, MoviePass crashed and burned when the MoviePass app stopped working or had limitations for most of its customers. MoviePass frequently switched its terms of service without giving customers proper notice. Subscribers complained of not getting responses from MoviePass customer service representatives. These problems continued for the next several months. The widespread customer complaints and several lawsuits against MoviePass led to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigating MoviePass for fraud.

Daniel Kaufman, the former FTC director who was involved in these MoviePass investigations, describes Farnsworth as a con man who didn’t really know how to operate a business but only knew how to promote a business. Journalists/reporters Nathan McAlone and Jason Guerrasio, who both covered the MoviePass saga for the website Business Insider, also describe Farnsworth as the worse person in the toxic duo of Farnsworth and Lowe. Business Insider is listed in the documentary’s end credits as a production collaborator for “MoviePass, MovieCrash.”

As for Lowe, he doesn’t take much personal responsibility for MoviePass’ downfall. Lowe shifts almost all of the blame on bad advice that he got from Farnsworth. In the documentary, Lowe says that when things came crashing down for MoviePass, Farnsworth told Lowe: “Just keep going and the money will come.” MoviePass’ bankruptcy and closure in 2019, as well as MoviePass’ revival by Spikes (who bought back the rights to MoviePass in 2021 and returned to the company as CEO), are briefly mentioned toward the end of the documentary. The MoviePass legal problems of Lowe, Farnsworth and Itum are in the documentary’s epilogue.

“MoviePass, MovieCrash” has interviews with former MoviePass customer service employees Sydney Weinshel, Emmanuel Freeman and Ezekiel Sansing; former MoviePass engineer Oscar Miscar; former MoviePass social media manager Drew Taylor; former Helios and Matheson public relations executive Mark Havener; former Urbanworld Film Festival director Gabrielle Glore; and former MoviePass subscribers Mat Levy, Jose Rolden and James Simermeyer. Also interviewed are several investors (some of whom were MoviePass investors, while some were not), such as Mark Gomes, John Fitchthorn, Ken Gardner, Ben Rabizadeh, Daymond John and Guy Primus.

The former MoviePass employees describe feeling optimistic and excited when they first joined the company, but that excitement soon turned to dread and discontent when they saw how things were being grossly mismanaged. Lower-lever staffers were overwhelmed with customer complaints, while MoviePass’ upper-level executives were living lavish lifestyles and denying that big problems existed at MoviePass. Miscar is the former MoviePass employee who is the most candid in the documentary interviews and is the only former MoviePass employee to call out the problematic racial issues in how Spikes and Watt were pushed out of MoviePass by an all-white team of executives.

Spikes and Watt are diplomatic when talking about their humiliating exits from MoviePass. Watt emphatically states that MoviePass is in his past, and he’s happy to have moved on to other things. (He’s an investor consultant.) By contrast, Spikes is still very clearly haunted by the demise of MoviePass from 2018 to 2019, and he is determined to make the company even bigger and better than it ever was. Spikes mentions he was partially inspired to revive MoviePass by how Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs and Dell Technologies founder Michael Dell were ousted from the companies they founded and made big comebacks when they returned to those companies.

“MoviePass, Movie Crash” uses a lot of clips from movies and TV shows as ways to put an emphasis on the emotions and reactions being described in the documentary. This editing brings some amusing entertainment to an otherwise infuriating story about corporate corruption. Spikes mentions that if he and Watt had been running MoviePass in the same the way that Lowe and Farnsworth ran the company into the ground, then Spikes and Watt would’ve gotten quicker and harsher legal consequences.

There is some mention in the documentary about these racial inequalities for entrepreneurs, with the obvious fact that white men get the vast majority of investment money. Watt says in the documentary that a start-up company such as MoviePass needed this factor to take the company to the next level: “If you have a white man with more gray hair that could inspire other white males with white hair to be more comfortable investing. It’s a factor we considered through the entire entrepreneurial journey.”

Lowe and Farnsworth certainly took MoviePass to the “next level,” but at what cost? The MoviePass brand name and reputation became permanently tarnished. Millions of dollars were lost. Untold numbers of people felt ripped off and cheated by MoviePass. And certain people got into big legal trouble over how MoviePass was mishandled.

The racial implications of MoviePass’ history are certainly acknowledged in the documentary. However, there’s no good reason for the noticeably low number of women interviewed for this documentary. Studies from the Motion Picture Association and other sources have shown for years that women are about 51% of the movie ticket buyers in the United States, and females are about 51% of moviegoers. And yet, there are no female MoviePass subscribers interviewed in this documentary. (A social media clip of a random female former MoviePass subscriber talking about MoviePass is not the same thing as an interview.)

The very real problem of sexism is completely ignored in “MoviePass, MovieCrash,” which comes across as very much like a “boys’ club” documentary without including the realities of how women have a big impact on movie ticket buying. The “MoviePass, MovieCrash” filmmakers also never question why women were excluded from being MoviePass’ highest-ranking leaders. The documentary’s biggest flaw is failing to mention these issues regarding gender and sexism. However, “MoviePass, MovieCrash” does a sufficient job of answering this question for anyone who is curious: “Whatever happened to MoviePass?”

HBO premiered “MoviePass, MovieCrash” on May 29, 2024.

Review: ‘The Commandant’s Shadow,’ starring Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, Maya Lasker-Wallfisch, Kai Höss and Hans Jurgen Höss

May 24, 2024

by Carla Hay

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, Maya Lasker-Wallfisch, Kai Höss and Hans Jurgen Höss in “The Commandant’s Shadow” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

“The Commandant’s Shadow” (2024)

Directed by Daniela Völker

Some language in German and Polish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Europe and in the United States, the documentary film “The Commandant’s Shadow” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few Asians and biracial people) in a movie about two families whose ancestors were on opposite sides of the Holocaust.

Culture Clash: One family consists of descendants of notorious Nazi leader Rudolf Höss (commandant of the Auschwitz death camp), while the other family consists of descendants of Auschwitz survivors.

Culture Audience: “The Commandant’s Shadow” will appeal primarily to people interested in very unusual documentary about the Holocaust and its aftermath.

Maya Lasker-Wallfish, Kai Höss and Hans Jurgen Höss in “The Commandant’s Shadow” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Heartbreaking and inspirational, “The Commandant’s Shadow” documentary shows how two families, whose ancestors were on opposite sides of the Holocaust, confront and try to heal from these painful legacies. In many ways, “The Commandant’s Shadow” could be considered the real-life sequel of the Oscar-winning 2023 drama “The Zone of Interest,” which presented a disturbing view of the Holocaust from the perspective of Auschwitz death camp commandant Rudolf Höss as a Nazi family man. When he was transferred from Germany to Auschwitz, Poland, he was tasked with overseeing what would end up being the death camp that murdered the most Jewish people (an estimated 1.1 million) during the Holocaust. The Auschwitz death camp was located a fence away from the Höss household.

Directed by Daniela Völker, “The Commandant’s Shadow” gives an unflinching and fascinating look at some of Rudolf Höss’ descendants and some of the Jewish people directly affected by the Auschwitz death camp. The documentary also shows what happens when these descendants meet in person for the first time. “The Commandant’s Shadow” focuses on four of these descendants, whose in-person meeting is shown near the end of the documentary.

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch (who turned 98 years old when this documentary was filmed) is a Holocaust survivor who was imprisoned at Auschwitz from December 1943 to October 1944, when the Auschwitz death camp was liberated by British military forces. Originally from Germany, she was a cellist who taken by Nazis to Auschwitz, and she was chosen to be in the Auschwitz death camp orchestra. Anita (whose parents were murdered in the Holocaust) says in the documentary that her musical skills are the main reason why she was kept alive. After she was rescued from Auschwitz, she relocated to England, where she and her husband raised their family in the London area.

Dr. Maya Lasker-Wallfisch is Anita’s psychotherapist daughter, who has written memoirs about being a second-generation child of a Holocaust survivor. It was Maya’s idea to initiate contact with surviving members of Rudolf Höss’ family. During the filming of the documentary in 2020, Maya moved from her birth country of England to Germany, even though she didn’t know how to speak German at the time. Currently living in the German capital city of Berlin, Maya says in the documentary that she was compelled to move to Germany because she felt she would have been born in Germany if her family’s life had not been disrupted by the Holocaust.

Hans Jurgen Höss is Rudolf Höss’ youngest child, who currently lives in Poland. In the documentary, he says that in his childhood, before he knew the terrible truth of what his father did, he thought of his father as a prison boss. Hans describes having an idyllic childhood where he could see the Auschwitz death camp from his home, but he claims that he never saw or smelled any of the smoke from the Auschwitz death camp’s ovens and gas chambers where Jewish people were murdered.

Kai Höss, who lives in Germany, is the Christian pastor son of Hans Jurgen Höss. Kai and Maya were the first two members of these families to meet each other and were instrumental in getting their widowed parents to meet each other. Kai is more vocal than Hans in condemning the atrocities committed by Rudolf Höss. Kai believes his father Hans has blocked out a lot of childhood memories that would be too painful to remember. For example, Kai finds it unlikely that Hans never saw smoke or smelled the odor from the burning bodies of Jewish people because the Auschwitz death camp was so near to the Höss household.

A great deal of the documentary includes discussions of how each person has processed what the Holocaust did to their families. Anita admits that she wasn’t an affectionate or attentive parent when Maya was a child because of the lingering trauma of the Holocaust and because Anita was often too busy working as a professional cellist. Anita says that the Holocaust was something that people didn’t really ask her about, and she didn’t talk to her family members about her Holocaust experience until about 50 years after it happened.

Anita comments in the documentary: “I’m the wrong mother for my daughter. I’m very basic. Trauma? Forget it. Get on with life.” Still, when asked about antisemitism, Anita says that it will never really go away and that it’s absolutely possible for the Holocaust to happen again.

Maya says that she and her mother Anita have opposite personalities, especially when it comes to dealing with past trauma and showing emotions. Maya states about her unhappy childhood: “Nobody in those days understood the impact of the Holocaust on the second generation.” In the documentary, Maya gets choked up with tears when she looks at childhood photos of herself and remembers how sad she was as a child but didn’t understand why until she learned more about her family’s Holocaust history.

Hans claims not to remember much (or he doesn’t want to say on camera) about how his father Rudolph Höss’ shameful legacy affected him. In the documentary, Hans says he never knew that his father had a memoir book. This book was written when Rudolph Höss was in prison for his Nazi war crimes. The title of that book won’t be mentioned in this review, but the documentary shows Hans reading the book for the first time. (Excerpts from the book are read as voiceover narration by actor Klemens Koehring.)

Hans says about the book: “I wish I’d never read it. It’s horrendous.” Even after getting more details about the genocide committed by Rudolph Höss, his son Hans remains conflicted. Hans condemns the actions of his father but says that he will always remember his father as being a good parent. Later in the documentary, Hans is seen visiting the grave of his mother Hedwig, who is mentioned a few times. Hans remembers her as a loving parent too.

Kai never knew his grandfather Rudolph Höss (who was executed by hanging in 1947), so it’s easier for Kai than Hans to give criticism about the horrible things that Rudolph Höss did. Kai has an interracial marriage and interracial kids, and he welcomes all races to his congregation. He seems to actually live the opposite of the hate-filled ideology of the Nazis.

Kai talks a lot about tolerance and forgiveness in the documentary, although he understands how many people could never forgive those who were direct causes of the Holocaust. Kai, who has read Rudolph Höss’ memoir, says that his impression of Rudolph from the memoir is Rudolph was someone who was “a clinical observer” to the Nazis’ murderous hate and had a “coldness to his soul.”

One of the more memorable parts of the documentary is when Hans has a reunion with his beloved older sister Püppi, whom he hadn’t seen in about 45 years. The reunion took place at the home of Püppi, who lives in the East Coat of the United States. In the documentary, she is the Höss family member who is the most in denial about the horrors caused by Rudolph Höss and other Nazis during the Holocaust. Püppi says that Rudolph Höss was a “good person” who “got into a situation he couldn’t get out of,” and she doesn’t really want to acknowledge the murders that her father oversaw. Püppi is an example of someone who downplays the horrors of the Holocaust and the role that her father had in this atrocious genocide.

“The Commandant’s Shadow” includes archival photos of the Höss household in Auschwitz that were recreated in the production design for “The Zone of Interest.” There is also some archival footage of Rudolph Höss during the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders. Anita Lasker-Wallfisch shares poignant memories of her family, including her sisters Marianna and Renata, their attorney father and their violinist mother. Anita says that her father stubbornly refused to move from Germany, even after indications that the Nazis were persecuting Jewish people.

Fortunately, “The Commandant’s Shadow” doesn’t make the mistake of overstuffing the documentary with the usual talking-head commentators for history-based documentaries (such as academics or politicians) and keeps the story very intimate by centering it on these two families. The musical score by Gabriel Chwojnik and the film editing by Claire Guillon are also effective in conveying the moods for the documentary. By the time Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, Maya Lasker-Wallfisch, Kai Höss and Hans Jurgen Höss are shown together in a group meeting, it’s a “full circle” moment that proves that although families can be affected by traumatic damage, the damage doesn’t have to exist in constant hate and can leave room for much-needed healing.

Warner Bros. Pictures and Fathom Events will release “The Commandant’s Shadow” in select U.S. cinemas for a limited engagement on May 29 and May 30, 2024, and June 7 to June 13, 2024. HBO and Max will premiere the movie on July 18, 2024.

Review: ‘Resistance: They Fought Back,’ starring Richard Freund, Dana Mazurkevich, Samuel Bak, David Gur, Dina Porat, Michael Schudrich and Yoel Yaari

April 28, 2024

by Carla Hay

An archival photo of Abba Kovner (back row, standing in the center) and the Vilna resistance in “Resistance: They Fought Back” (Photo by Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum/Abramorama)

“Resistance: They Fought Back”

Directed by Paula S. Apsell and Kirk Wolfinger

Some language in Polish and Hungarian with subtitles

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Resistance: They Fought Back” features an all-white, mostly Jewish group of people historians, academics, Holocaust survivors and descendant of Holocaust survivors sharing historical information about what European Jewish people did to resist the Holocaust in the 1930s and 1940s.

Culture Clash: Resistance took many forms, including armed defense against the Nazis, smuggling away or hiding Jews from Nazi persecution, and providing food and education to Jewish people who were trapped in prison-like ghettos.

Culture Audience: “Resistance: They Fought Back” will appeal primarily to people interested in documentaries that have many personal stories about the Holocaust.

An archival photo of Jews from the Lodz Ghetto in “Resistance: They Fought Back” (Photo courtesy of Getty Images/Abramorama)

“Resistance: They Fought Back” is a vital documentary for anyone wanting a deeper understanding about the courage and the necessity of resistance by Jewish people and allies during the Holocaust. The movie combines history with personal testimonials. Many historical facts about the Holocaust are already known, but the individual stories revealed in this documentary aren’t necessarily taught in history classes.

Directed by Paula S. Apsell and Kirk Wolfinger, “Resistance: They Fought Back” features interviews historians, academics, Holocaust survivors and descendants of Holocaust survivors. Many of the resistance stories that told in the documentaries are directly from diaries, letters and journals written by Jewish people who were imprisoned in Nazi-controlled ghettos or death camps in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. Some journals, letters and diaries were buried and unearthed years later. Others were passed down through families for generations.

Early on in “Resistance: They Fought Back,” American professor Richard Freund, a Jewish historian/archaeologist, makes a powerful statement about the Holocaust that can be considered the purpose of this documentary: “People have this myth stuck in their heads that the Jews went to their death like sheep to the slaughter, but this is where the real story begins: They fought back.” (Freund died in 2022, at the age of 67. The documentary has a dedication to him in the end credits.)

The real-life written stories in “Resistance: They Fought Back” have voiceover narration from several actors, including Corey Stoll, Dianna Agron, Maggie Siff, Romy Rosemont, Julie Benko, David Rosenberg, Lisa Loeb, Joel De La Fuente, Andrew Kishino and Mark Zeisler. Documentary viewers will get behind-the-scenes stories about several heroic Jewish resistance fighters that are testament to how many people resisted Nazi oppression in many different ways. Most of the resistance fighters who are mentioned this documentary were in their teens and 20s at the time they documented their resistance activities.

Abba Kovner was a resistance leader from the Vilna Ghetto in Vilnius, Lithuania. He is one of the more prominent people named in the documentary as someone who believed in armed resistance. Kovner became a commander of an informal army of Jewish resisters. Kovner (whose mother was murdered in the Holocaust) also insisted on including women as part of the armed fighters, even when several people under his command were sexist and said women could not fight alongside the men. Abba’s wife Vita Kempner-Kovner was also part of the resistance movement. Their son Michael Kovner is interviewed in the documentary.

Bela Hazan was a courier in the resistance movement in Gordo, Belarus. Because she could pass herself off as a gentile, she pretended to be Catholic so she could get past certain Nazi security checkpoints. Hazan carried food, messages and other resources to and from Jewish ghettos until she was imprisoned by Nazis. Her professor son Yoel Yaari is one of the people interviewed in the documentary. He gets emotional at one point and says he can’t go into details about the atrocities his mother experienced during the Holocaust.

Vladka Meed and Ben Meed were a married couple who were part of the Warsaw Ghetto Resistance in Poland. The Meed spouses believed in Amdah: unarmed resistance. This belief included educating Jewish children when Nazis outlawed it; doing charitable work for people in Jewish ghettos; and helping Jewish people escape or hide from Nazi imprisonment. Drs. Rita Meed and Steven Meed, children of Vladka Meed and Ben Meed, are interviewed in the documentary.

Rabbi Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland, comments in the film: “Education was a form of resistance. If you never lost your humanity, then in a very real sense, you’re helping to beat the [Nazi] Germans.”

Samuel Bak, a professional artist who survived being in the Vilna Ghetto, had his first art exhibit in the ghetto at age 9. Bak says art “kept the psyche of the people, more or less, alive.” Other Holocaust survivors who are interviewed in the documentary are Budapest resistance fighter David Gur and Warsaw Ghetto survivor Krystina Budnicka.

One of the most memorable Holocaust survivor stories comes from violinist Dana Mazurkevich, who escaped as a child from the Kovno Ghetto in Kaunas, Lithuania. Her parents gave her to a woman who smuggled Mazurkevich in a potato sack. At a Nazi checkpoint, Mazurkevich was making whimpering noises in fear, but the woman carrying her in the sack was able to fool Nazi security officials at the checkpoint into thinking that she had a live pig in the sack.

In the documentary, Mazurkevich says about her parents, who died in the Holocaust: “It took unbelievable courage that they could give me away, and not knowing if they will survive, or if they will survive.” She gets choked up with emotions when she adds, “I think it was a big, big act of resistance.”

Chaim Melcer, who was born in 1927, lived in the city of Sobibór, Poland, a few miles from the Treblinka Death Camp. Almost 2 million Jews were murdered at Treblinka Death Camp. Melcer says in the documentary: “We could hear the screams and smell the burning.” He and his father escaper and lived in a forest for two years. Tragically, Melcer’s mother and younger siblings were murdered in the Sobibór death camp.

“Resistance: They Fought Back” also has narration of letters from resistance fighter Marcel Nadjari, a prisoner at the Auschwitz death camp who was sent there from Greece at the age of 27. Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz were called Sonder Kommando. A letter that Nadjari buried in a thermos at an Auschwitz crematorium was found in 1980. In total nine different Sonder Kommando letters and diaries have been found at this site where the Auschwitz death camp used to be.

Other people of the resistance who are mentioned in the documentary include Oneg Shaber (Sabbath Delight) leader Emanuel Ringelbaum, Warsaw Getto Uprising Commander Mordeca Anielewicz, archivist David Graber, Feige Peltel, Vilna resistance fighter Ruzka Korchak and Sonder Kommando prisoner Elieze Eisenschmidt. Holocaust survivors who are mentioned include Eania Dunetz, Esther Raab, Ada Neufeld and Jack Kagan, a resident of Novogrudok, Belarus, who was rescued by World War II hero Tuvia Bielski. Descendants of Holocaust survivors who are interviewed in the documentary include Jack Kagan’s son Michael Kagan, Dunetz’s daughter Batya Cohen, Korchak’s daughter Yonat Robain, Neufeld’s son Ronnen Harran and poet Abraham Sutzkever’s daughter Hadas Kalderon.

Several academics and historians who are interviewed in the documentary. They include Pawel Sawicki of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, Ilya Lensky of Jews in Latvia Museum, Paul Baum of BGC Engineering and Tomaz Oleksy-Zborowski of Sobibór’s Museum and Memorial. Professors who are interviewees include Gideon Greif, Avinoam Patt of New York University, Dina Porat of Tel Aviv University, Yehuda Bauer of Hebrew University, Harry Jol of the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, Patrick Henry of Whitman College, David Fishman of Jewish Theological Seminary, Michael Berenbaum of American Jewish University and Steven Bowman of the University of Cincinnati.

The documentary goes to several Holocaust locations, including the above-named museums, as well as Ponar Memorial and forest area, outside of Vilna, where Freund shows some of his students the death pits that were used to dispose of Jewish murder victims. Although “Resistance: They Fought Back” has disturbing and depressing accounts of the horrors of the Holocaust, the stories describe experiences of love and compassion not just for family members but for strangers who were also trapped in this terrible and shameful genocide. It’s this will to live and fight evil that will resonate the most with viewers of “Resistance: They Fought Back” and will serve as testament of the human spirit that ended up being much stronger than the Nazi forces who were defeated in World War II.

Abramorama released “Resistance: They Fought Back” in New York City on April 12, 2024, with an expansion to Los Angeles on May 10, 2024.

Review: ‘What Jennifer Did,’ starring Bill Courtice, Deborah Gladding, Alan Cooke, Hong Ngo, Nam Nguyen, David MacDonald and Fernando Baldassini

May 11, 2024

by Carla Hay

Samantha Chang (actress) in a re-enactment scene in “What Jennifer Did” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“What Jennifer Did”

Directed by Jenny Popplewell

Some language in Vietnamese with subtitles

Culture Representation: The documentary film “What Jennifer Did” features a predominantly white group of middle-class people (with two Asians and one black person) who are interviewed about the case of Canadian woman Jennifer Pan, who went on trial for the murder of her mother and the attempted murder of her father, in a “murder for hire” crime that took place in 2010, in Markham, Ontario.

Culture Clash: Jennifer Pan was accused of planning this murder-for-hire plot because her parents disapproved of her wanting to date a convicted drug dealer and they found out she lied about having a university degree.

Culture Audience: “What Jennifer Did” will appeal primarily to people interested in true crime documentaries, but this lazily made documentary is dull, omits important information, and offers no further investigations or new insights.

Bill Courtice in “What Jennifer Did” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“What Jennifer Did” has a cheap and unfinished quality to it. This true crime documentary has a sluggish pace and leaves out many necessary facts. The re-enactments and dramatic embellishments are also tacky. The interviews for the documentary repeat a lot of what is already shown in the police interrogation archival videos.

Directed by Jenny Popplewell, “What Jennifer Did” treats viewers like idiots. For the first half of this 87-minute documentary film, it lumbers along by trying to look like a “whodunit” murder mystery, when it’s obvious who the culprit is. And if viewers don’t know who the culprit is before seeing “What Jennifer Did” (which is a turgid rehash of the case), the title of the documentary says it all. There’s no mystery here.

One of the sloppiest things about “What Jennifer Did” is that the documentary doesn’t even mention the date of the crime in an explicit way. Observant viewers will have to notice the time stamps on surveillance videos shown intermittently in the documentary to find out the year the crime took place. The prime suspect’s age on the night of the crime is never mentioned either. Viewers have to make some deductions about what her age was when the crime happened (she was 24), based on the choppy and vague interviews that the documentary has with a few of her acquaintances.

And yet, it’s repeated to the point of irritation that the Canadian city where the crime took place (Markham, Ontario) is considered a safe area, and the murder was a shock to the community. It would have been sufficient to have this “Markham is a nice area” commentary once or twice. But when it’s said in various ways four or five times in the documentary, it’s gets to be tiresome and unnecessary.

Here are the facts of the case that are not detailed in the documentary: Jennifer Pan (the prime suspect in this case) was born in Markham on June 17, 1986. Her parents—mother Bich Ha Pan and father Huei Hann Pan, also known as Hann—were Chinese heritage refugees who moved from Vietnam to Ontario at separate times (Hann relocated to Ontario in 1979), and they met when they were living in Ontario. Jennifer has a younger brother named Felix, who was born in 1989. Shockingly, Felix is never mentioned in this documentary about a crime that was motivated by turmoil in this family. The murder of Bich and the attempted murder of Hann happened in their home in Markham, on November 8, 2010.

The documentary mentions that Bich and Hann worked for the same car parts company (but doesn’t mention the name of the company), where Bich was a “supervisor,” and Hann was a “machinist.” In the documentary, these parents are described as strict, hard-working, upwardly mobile, status-conscious, law-abiding, overprotective and demanding. The documentary makes sure to mention superficial things, such as the types of cars that these parents had (Hann had a Mercedes; Bich had a Lexus), but fails to mention more meaningful and interesting aspects of these parents’ lives for better context, such as what they went through as refugees to escape from Vietnam and to start new lives in Canada.

Jennifer was at home with her parents on the night of this crime. But if you were to believe the selective and incomplete facts presented in this documentary, you would think that Jennifer is an only child. “What Jennifer Did” completely erases her brother Felix from this story. Even if Felix wasn’t available for an interview, it’s absolutely irresponsible for this documentary’s filmmakers to make it look like he doesn’t exist. (Luckily, Felix wasn’t home during the crime.) Felix’s reactions to the case are in public records which aren’t very hard to find.

A great deal of “What Jennifer Did” consists of showing archival footage of interviews that Jennifer had with investigators at a York Regional police station. After each archival clip is shown, the documentary shows its own interviews with investigators repeating what was already shown in the archival footage. Among those interviewed are police detectives Bill Courtice (who was the case’s lead investigator), Deborah Gladding (who is a victim liaison officer), Alan Cooke and David MacDonald.

In her initial interviews with police, Jennifer said on the night of November 8, 2010, three black men she didn’t know did a home invasion with guns, demanded money from her parents, and tied up Jennifer and her parents. Jennifer said that she was taken upstairs, while her parents were downstairs. Bich and Hann were both shot. Bich did not survive. Hann was shot near one of his eyes and was in a coma.

Jennifer had no injuries and made the 911 call for help while she said she had her hands tied behind her back and her shoulder tied to a staircase banister. She also said she used her hands to call 911. The 911 call is played in the documentary. When police arrived, they found cash and other valuable items in the house. They also found there was no forced entry into the home.

You don’t have to be a true crime aficionado to see major holes in Jennifer’s story from the beginning. So-called “home invader thieves” demanded cash but left a lot of cash behind. They knowingly left a witness behind with no injuries while two other witnesses were shot. And how exactly did Jennifer call 911 with her hands, when she said her hands were tied behind her back and one shoulder was tied to a staircase banister? The police initially overlooked these inconsistencies because they couldn’t believe this meek-looking, soft-spoken young woman had anything to do with this crime.

Video surveillance footage from a neighbor eventually showed that Jennifer was telling the truth that three men entered the home that night through the Pan family home’s front door. The door was unlocked, but Jennifer says she didn’t know why. Did these men force their way in, or were they invited in advance? If you don’t know the answer, then you aren’t paying attention to all the obvious clues that Jennifer’s story was a lie from the beginning.

Unfortunately, “What Jennifer Did” drags out this fake suspense in annoying ways, such as showing repetitive shots of police detectives looking contemplative while driving in their cars, or Gladding saying how she had a lot of empathy for Jennifer, whom she believed was an innocent victim—until there was indisputable proof that Jennifer wasn’t an innocent victim at all. The documentary’s re-enactment scenes (with actress Samantha Chang portraying a mid-20s Jennifer) are often shown in dream-like slow-motion. Many of the interviewees talk slowly, as if they are bored by this documentary. Many viewers who know what a good documentary is will be bored too.

One of the major aspects of the case has to do with Danny Wong, Jennifer’s drug-dealing ex-boyfriend. He was the main reason why Jennifer had so much resentment toward her parents, who understandably did not want her dating a drug dealer and forbade her from being in contact with him. Wong is not interviewed for the documentary, but the documentary has some archival video footage of an interview that he did with police after he knew that Jennifer’s parents were shot.

In this archival interview, Wong is never convincing when he tells police that he stopped being a drug dealer after he got arrested for it. At the time of the home invasion, Wong had an alibi. He claimed to be living a law-abiding life as an employee at a fast-food restaurant. Wong told police that the main reason why Jennifer’s parents didn’t approve of him was that he wasn’t making enough money in this low-paying restaurant job. (In other words, Wong was downplaying his drug-dealing activity in this police interview.)

Jennifer is not interviewed for the documentary, nor does she need to be. She’s a proven pathological liar and doesn’t need to have a platform to say more lies. She still maintains that she never planned to have her parents murdered. An update on her case is mentioned in the documentary’s epilogue.

Among the many big lies that Jennifer told that were exposed in this case was Jennifer fooled her parents and other people into thinking she graduated with a pharmacology degree from the University of Toronto. She was never enrolled in the university and forged a University of Toronto degree as part of the deceit. It’s mentioned that Jennifer chose pharmacology because she and her parents knew that her grades weren’t good enough in high school for her to become a doctor, lawyer, scientist or engineer, which were the preferred professions that her parents wanted her to have.

However, the documentary never explains how Jennifer’s parents—who are repeatedly described as overbearing and intrusive about what Jennifer did with her time—could be conned into not going to a graduation ceremony that Jennifer knew did not exist for her. The documentary mentions that Hann was so controlling, he used to drive Jennifer to Ryerson University (in Toronto), when she fooled her parents into thinking she was enrolled there, before she faked her enrollment in the University of Toronto. It’s also mentioned that when Jennifer was a child, her parents pushed her into entering pianist competitions that she often won and had plenty of trophies and photos to prove it.

How could these “overbearing” parents miss out on a graduation ceremony, which would be a major milestone that these parents would want photos of too? The answer: Jennifer told her family there were no graduation ceremony tickets available for them, according to Felix’s court testimony detailed in journalist Jeremy Grimaldi’s 2016 non-fiction book “A Daughter’s Deadly Deception: The Jennifer Pan Story.” Felix also testified that Jennifer lied by stating a friend who took the graduation photos went back to Hong Kong without giving Jennifer the photos.

Jennifer’s deception about the graduation ceremony is one of many details that the documentary overlooks and does not explain. Even if Jennifer was going to financially gain from her parent’s deaths, through an inheritance and/or life insurance policy, the documentary makes it look like Jennifer would have been her parents’ only heir, when that is simply not true. The documentary never mentions how other Pan family members felt about this tragedy and how they reacted to Jennifer being under suspicion for masterminding this “murder for hire” plot.

“What Jennifer Did” is also vague about Jennifer’s employment history after she faked graduating from the University of Toronto. It’s briefly mentioned that she had trouble finding a job as a pharmacist. It doesn’t take a genius to know why she couldn’t be a pharmacist. However, the documentary doesn’t say if she found other types of work or had any type of employment at the time of the crime.

Jennifer was accused of paying for these hit men to carry out this murder-for-hire plot. The money that her parents gave to Jennifer for her fake “university expenses” had already been spent long ago. Where did she get the money to pay for this murder for hire? Don’t expect “What Jennifer Did” to answer that question.

And you can’t really trust a documentary that refuses to mention the important fact that the two victim parents had another child who was affected by this horrible crime. The documentary presents a factually incorrect narrative impression that Jennifer was an only child who felt emotionally smothered by tyrannical parents, who both wanted to keep her as sheltered and family-oriented as possible. But if these parents had so much suffocating control over Jennifer’s life, why didn’t they check up on Jennifer and her supposed university enrollment?

It’s not quite victim blaming, but the documentary presents a narrow and misleading view of the Pan family by having missing or contradictory information. Because “What Jennifer Did” deliberately does not mention Jennifer’s brother Felix, the documentary does not include the parental relationship that Bich and Hann had with Felix, or the sibling relationship that Jennifer had with Felix, to further explain the family’s dynamics. Did the parents treat Felix differently from Jennifer? Obviously, the documentary doesn’t answer that question because it wants to pretend that Felix does not exist.

Three people who knew Jennifer are interviewed in the documentary: Hong Ngo, a Pan family friend; Fernando Baldassini, who was Jennifer’s piano teacher; and Nam Nguyen, who was Jennifer’s friend in high school. Ngo says she knew about Jennifer faking her university education and says that Jennifer’s parents demanded that Jennifer pay back the money they thought went to college tuition. However, the documentary does such a bad job of interviewing people, it’s never made clear when Ngo found out this information.

Baldassini doesn’t offer any information that’s substantial, since it’s obvious he didn’t know what really went on behind closed doors in the Pan family home. Baldassini says the only sign of trouble that he saw was when Jennifer broke down and cried one day during a piano lesson. According to Baldassini, Jennifer said during this meltdown that her parents were driving her crazy. Baldassini says it was the first and only time he saw Jennifer distressed. Not surprisingly, Baldassini says he was completely shocked when Jennifer was accused of masterminding the crime that got her parents shot.

Out of all the interviewees, Nguyen has the most information to share about Jennifer’s volatile relationship with Wong, which lasted off and on, for six or seven years. Nguyen says that Jennifer and Wong frequently argued and broke up. The final breakup was in 2008, and the former couple agreed to be platonic friends. Wong had a girlfriend when the crime happened. By all accounts, Jennifer was obsessed with Wong and was not happy that he had moved on to dating someone else. Nguyen also mentions that he, Jennifer and many of the students at their high school came from Asian immigrant families who expected all family members to be high achievers.

As for the three men who entered the Pan family’s home that night, their names are mentioned, but their photos are never shown in the documentary. It’s a very strange and unexplained omission, considering the outcome of the case. These omissions are just more examples of shoddy filmmaking on display. Any courtroom trials in this case are just briefly mentioned as an epilogue in the documentary.

“What Jennifer Did” completely ignores the racial implications of this case. Many people (including members of the media and investigating police officers) were quick to believe that three black men committed this crime on their own and that a seemingly innocent-looking Asian woman couldn’t have anything to do with it, even though there were massive early clues that she was involved. The police got a lot of answers and evidence when they finally did something they should’ve done earlier: investigate Jennifer Pan’s phone records.

Between the unexplained omissions of important details and the lackluster way that this story is told, “What Jennifer Did” is a disappointing and irresponsible documentary that could have told so much more to this story. The documentary obviously took more time setting up props and hiring actors for re-enactments than caring about presenting a lot of crucial facts. Viewers will learn more from reading the Wikipedia page for Jennifer Pan than in wasting time watching “What Jennifer Did.”

Netflix premiered “What Jennifer Did” on May 10, 2024.

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